Education Journalism. Another Epic Failure

This weekend, the Washington Post took education secretary Arne Duncan to task for claiming that DC’s public school system has ”had more money than God for a long time.” Post education reporter Bill Turque notes a January 2009 study showing “that D.C., ranked against the 50 states, is 13th in per-pupil expenditures ($11,193).” The study he cites is the January 2009 edition of Education Week’s Quality Counts publication, which used “Department of Education data from 2005-06 (the latest year available).”

Is this finally an example of the investigative journalism I recently noted has been sorely lacking in education? Not exactly. The Post and Ed Week are reporting a figure that is less that half of what DC is actually spending on k-12 education this year.

Their first error is to imagine that the Dept. of Ed.’s 3-year-old data are the most recent available. As a few seconds of Googling demonstrate, the current year education budgets for the District are available on the website of DC’s Chief Financial Officer: here, here, and here.

What difference do 3 years make? Consider that total spending on education in DC has gone up in real terms over that period while enrollment has fallen from about 59,000 to fewer than 49,000 students. That alone has led to a dramatic rise in per pupil spending.

Next consider that Ed Week appears to have ignored capital spending (e.g., on building renovation and construction) from its calculations. So its “per pupil expenditures” are not the total per pupil figures that readers would naturally assume, they only cover part of the district’s spending (the part normally referred to as “current operating expenditures”). What difference does that make? Nearly $5,000 worth.

As I noted last year, “current operating expenditures” for DC were $13,466 in 2005-06 (Ed Week’s figure is lower because they applied a regional cost-of-living adjustment). DC’s total per pupil spending in that same year was $18,098. [Note that we have to infer that Ed Week excluded capital spending based on the numbers they report, because their table inexplicably fails to say what figures it is reporting.]

And finally, reporting old figures without adjusting for inflation understates how much was actually spent unless readers know to perform the inflation adjustment themselves.

So what happens when you add up this year’s total spending on k-12 education in DC and divide by this year’s actual enrollment? You end up with the real per pupil spending figure of $26,555.

So, secretary Duncan: you were right all along.

Any journalist or public official wishing an explanation of the current-year total per pupil spending figure cited above for Washington, DC  is welcome to contact me at acoulson(at) cato.org